Try Something Different — Silent Movies!

I’ve only recently begun watching silent films in earnest, and I find my interest in them grows with every one. 

I am fascinated by the ability of the actors and directors to tell a story with a minimum of words, delivered on “title cards.” You literally cannot look away from the screen, relying on the dialogue and soundtrack to keep you abreast of the narrative. There is nothing to the film but what you can take in with your eyes.

Some years ago, I watched one of the best of all silent films, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. This is the movie to show anyone who thinks he can’t “get into” a silent film.  For me, it’s still the best film of a saint that I know. But, I didn’t do any further delving into the first 30 years of cinema, the silent era.

I got restarted after buying a box set of silent movies by Alfred Hitchcock who learned his trade making silents beginning in 1922 in a variety of jobs before directing (credited) his first film in 1925.  

Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched several Hitchcock silent films, including “The Lodger” (1927), which many consider his silent masterpiece (see image above).  As much as I enjoyed this take on the Jack the Ripper story, I preferred “The Manxman,” from 1927, his last silent, which depicts a woman torn between the love of two men, who themselves are best friends.   

“The Ring” (1927) is also worth watching with its depiction of another woman torn between two men, this time her boxer husband and an urban dandy. It contains a particularly good fight scene where the boxer and the dandy square off in the ring with a surprising result.    

Of course, there are also the silent comics — Chaplain, Laurel & Hardy, Lloyd, Keaton, etc., and Chippy and I are sampling them all.  So much humor nowadays depends on foul language, I am showing him that the best comedians never even needed to utter a word. 

Deal W. Hudson

By

Deal W. Hudson is president of Catholic Advocate, an organization which engages and encourages faithful Catholics to actively participate in the political process to support elected officials and policies that remain consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Formerly publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine for ten years, his articles and comments have been published widely in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, and U.S. News and World Report. He has also appeared on TV and radio news shows such as the O'Reilly Factor, Hannity & Colmes, NBC News, and All Things Considered on National Public Radio. Hudson worked with Karl Rove in coordinating then-Gov. George W. Bush's outreach to Catholic voters in 2000 and 2004. In October 2003, President Bush appointed him a member of the official delegation from the United States to attend the 25th anniversary celebration of John Paul II's papacy. Hudson, a former professor of philosophy for 15 years, is the editor and author of eight books. He tells the story of his conversion from Southern Baptist to Catholic in An American Conversion (Crossroad, 2003), and his latest, Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States, was published in March 2008. He is married to Theresa Carver Hudson, also a Baptist convert, and they have two children, Hannah, 21, and Cyprian, 13, who was adopted from Romania in 2001.

  • Adam

    I’m so glad you mentioned Dreyer’s film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” I think it is one of the most spiritual films I’ve ever shot on film. I was so surprised when I first watched it that a silent film could move me so much. The close-up facial shots are simply stunning and leave an indelible mark. I highly recommend the film to other readers of this site.

    Oh, by the way, there’s a fascinating backstory to the recovery of that original Danish film in the closet of a mental institution in Oslo. See here for more: http://www.silentera.com/video…ArcHV.html

  • Joseph Susanka

    If you and Chippy have not yet seen Keaton’s Seven Chances, I cannot recommend it highly enough. An absolute gem when it comes to comedic timing, and actually directed by Keaton himself. The opening 20-25 minutes are particularly charming, and the chase sequences that make up the finale could be studied with good effect by today’s filmmakers.

    It was subsequently remade into a dreadful 1999 film with Chris O’Donnell called The Bachelor, which cannot be unrecommended “highly” enough.

  • Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick

    I just can’t see the attraction or genius to Dreyer’s “Joan of Arc.” All I can remember of it are interminable close-ups, conveying that she was not having a good time.

    It’s the last silent film I would ever show to someone who had never seen one.

    My choice would be “The Cameraman,” or “Spite Marriage,” or “City Lights.”

  • Henry Karlson

    Of course, for silent film fans, the restored Metropolis is going to be a gem — 25 more minutes of footage which is supposed to add depth to the characters (I have not seen it yet, but I am looking forward to when I can).

    And there is “When Lincoln Paid” with Francis Ford (brother of John) playing President Lincoln in this newly rediscovered 1913 silent film. That one looks interesting, although I don’t know how good it actually will end up being.

  • Joseph Susanka

    My choice would be “The Cameraman,” or “Spite Marriage,” or “City Lights.”

    Father’s suggestion of The Cameraman reminded me of one of my first (and best) experiences with silent film: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. It definitely falls into the “experimental” category; lots of stop-motion photography and in-camera effects. (Plus, one of the first examples of forced perspective I’ve seen. PJ would be proud.)

    http://bit.ly/xSzcu

  • Deal Hudson

    Father, you comment on Dreyer’s Joan made me laugh out loud. No, she was definitely not having a “good time.” If I were defend my recommendation of the film, which of course I would not, I would point to its memorable design elements that reflect the work of Pabst and Murnau, although Dreyer was just as much as pioneer as they.

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